NORWALK, Conn. – Things keep going from bad to worse at Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON). The Norwalk-based social service agency is in serious debt and has missed payrolls, has lost its halfway house contracts with the state Department of Corrections and has had its Head Start contract suspended by the federal Department of Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF).
Documents from that agency, the state Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Office of the Inspector General, along with reports from former NEON Board of Directors members, reveal not only an agency in crisis, but an agency in denial.
Multiple audits have shown a long-standing lack of proper accounting for grants and other money and a lack of financial controls crucial to maintaining 501c3 status, as well as “inappropriate” hiring practices including nepotism and salary increases despite swimming in a sea of red ink.
While DSS and ACF, agencies that fund NEON’s projects, detail meetings and communications with NEON management as recently as mid-October in which the agency was warned it was not complying with their requirements for continued operations, NEON officials have reportedly downplayed the problems to their clients.
Eyewitness accounts of meetings and copies of NEON’s response to a DSS audit show an agency in denial as interim president and CEO Chiquita Stephenson has disputed nearly every finding and pointed the finger at former president and CEOs Joe Mann and Pat Wilson Pheanious, Mayor Richard Moccia and DSS itself for the agency’s problems.
Despite the meetings and written warnings, Stephenson portrayed Thursday’s Head Start suspension as sudden and rallied Head Start clients to her side, blaming the federal government for shutting down the program with no notice and leaving the families without Head Start. For many people whose children attend Head Start, that meant having to stay home from work and risk losing jobs.
Through it all, Stephenson has protested the government agency’s actions because they have endangered families, but her current refusal to meet with a company assigned by the feds to take over Head Start on an interim basis and to transfer the license smacks of a self-serving power play, using NEON’s client families as pawns.
Even current NEON Board of Directors member Jack O’Dea, who has been a big Stephenson supporter since her controversial six-month appointment to run the agency, expressed frustration Sunday and said he has “no idea” what’s going on.
NancyOnNorwalk feels it is time for NEON’s Board of Directors and its chairman, Stamford businessman Michael Berkoff, to step up and remove Stephenson as interim head of the agency and reach outside for a qualified executive to untangle the mess.
Also, until NEON gets a clean bill of health from its state and federal overseers, we agree with the mayor that not one penny of Norwalk’s taxpayer money should be given to the agency. We would, however, urge Moccia or Harry Rilling, whoever wins the Nov. 5 mayoral election, to have a plan to assist those Norwalk citizens in need who get left out in the cold by the machinations at 98 South Main St.